Project Zomboid is still in Early Access and that’s amazing

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There is only one game I ever purchased on Desura and it was Project Zomboid, way back in 2011. This cool little indie isometric game strove to bring a Romero-esque slow zombie apocalypse to life by mixing survival skills, community management, close quarters combat, exploration, mental health, and a lot of good moaning sounds. It was a project I was backing but also getting in on the ground floor for, as I watched the developers list off exciting features they hoped to introduce, and work alongside the gaming community. Project Zomboid finally hit Steam Early Access in 2013… and it has been stuck there ever since.

But stuck isn’t the right word for it. Or at least I’m hoping it isn’t.

I have a terrible history with test/beta gaming. I don’t have the time to get to all the finished games I want to play, so for unfinished builds or games in progress I always get excited, conceptually, and then completely forget to follow through. Perhaps because, to almost put it in dating terms, Project Zomboid was my first, I keep coming back to it. Once a year, like clockwork, it springs into my head and akin to texting a late night “You Up?”, there I am reinstalling the game to see what’s new with it. But also, to keep the metaphor going, I expect each year to find that Project Zomboid just isn’t there anymore. The kind of title to emerge from first-wave crowdfunding support way back in the 2010s just… there aren’t any survivors at this point. Any game from that time period is either finished now or it just disappeared from Steam one day and now no one can get a hold of the developers.

That’s never the case here.

Project Zomboid has a thriving community, and that community isn’t just celebrating a game they enjoy that’s fun but stagnant. They’re actively helping development, and often dealing with patches and upgrades at a speed you don’t see on titles of comparable size. Part of it seems to be that fans of the game are helping test small elements individually, as you can read about in an update last week about the implementation of vehicles into the game world. Elsewhere, tweaks to animation are creating visible, interesting changes, while testing feedback is coming in on a seasonal/weather system that impacts the colors but also the functionality and effects of characters and their habitats… etc. It’s a breathing, evolving world that is always getting larger while hammering out minutiae.

Point being: I know that I’ve been a stick-in-the-mud about games in Early Access before. More than once at RPS I’ve admitted that I thought The Forest had already been finished and released for years. (It’s out officially today. Sorry.) I understand, technically, all the positives that come from this state but my dumb-idiot emotion brain has often been a wee bit crap at translating those positives into positivity.

So when I circled back to Project Zomboid last week and saw that it was still in Early Access, I felt a twinge of disappointment. “When does this get finished finally?” But the more I see how the community and the dev team treat this game, the more I realize that there’s absolutely no reason it needs to stop being this. Sure, it’ll be a “finished” game at some point, but with updates and patches and DLC there isn’t even a concept of a “finished” game except what we apply that label to. Ostensibly, The Indie Stone could just call their next stable build the finished game, but I now get what a let down that would be, and how much a title like Zomboid benefits from the engagement of people working, not towards a fixed goal, but towards making a brilliant thing, collectively.

No rush. Stay in Early Access forever. Build a community there and learn to harvest crops. Maybe Early Access was the real survival horror game all along?

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Project Zomboid is available on Steam. I wish The Indie Stone all the best on their debut title, whether it ever technically debuts or not.

Finally, please watch the Rezzed presentation from the team, after their laptops with the source code for the game were stolen in 2011. It’s called “How Not To Make A Game”:

39 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Blimey..I was at that Rezzed session. I am now old. :(

  2. geldonyetich says:

    But stuck isn’t the right word for it. Or at least I’m hoping it isn’t.

    You might have to convince me it’s not. The way I hear it, Project Zomboid’s development completely changed hands. Several times. Ironically, it’s a bit of a zombie project.

    • ulix says:

      It really is not. They are actively developing it. The new update introduces cars to the normal build (they have been in an experimental build for a while) which completely changes the dynamics of the game.

      It’s pretty great. It is a wonderful hardcore survival sim, and there are great persistent multiplayer servers if you look for them.

      It is, by far, the best zombie apocalypse survival game.

      Yes, it is not finished, and there’s a ton of stuff missing they promised years ago (NPCs please!?!).

      • ribby says:

        I would say Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead gives it a pretty good run for its money.

        • ulix says:

          I do like graphics though.

        • Mmmslash says:

          You’re absolutely right. Zomboid is neat, but CDDA beats the pants off anything else in the genre. It is the Err Game.

        • TheOx129 says:

          I haven’t played either Zomboid or Cataclysm in a long while now, but I fell away from the latter once they started piling on increasingly tedious mechanics in the name of ~realism~. Did that get better, worse, or stay the same over time? It felt like the dev team was divided into two camps that had distinctly different visions for the game, and the game suffered for it.

      • qrter says:

        What I generally get from reading the community’s comments is that they feel the devs are wasting time on anything but what they’d like to see most – NPCs.

        • gunrodent says:

          Hear hear. Indiestone is probably the equivalent of an anarchosyndicalist commune where nobody gets to tell noone what they should be doing. “Do npcs!” – “NO YOU do npcs!” – “Help, help, I am being repressed!”

        • wengart says:

          Yea, I bought Zomboid years ago now and have essentially been waiting on NPCs to get released. They are apparently working on them, but I haven’t seen any new info in forver.

          Not to say that its a bad game,multiplayer can be a lot of fun. Just that I really wanted a single-player sandbox game with NPCs that the demo hinted at.

    • nasKo says:

      Always been the same team working on it. It’s just gotten bigger over the years.

  3. JoeyJungle says:

    Kenshi is another title that started from around the same time that I always have “Did that ever get finished?” moments with. They had their own share of early development disasters as well, looks like the game’s supposes to leave Early Access some time this year though

    • Crimsoneer says:

      I bought both of these back in those dark days. May have to re-install!

    • FordTruck says:

      Yeah, Kenshi is probably one of the most ambitious games I’ve ever played and hands down one of the best gameplay experiences I’ve ever had with gaming, if they market it right and refine the UI a bit more and the beginning for new players the world is theirs.

      it’s the definition of sandbox RPG.

  4. MrEvilGuy says:

    They even have split screen co-op now, I think, with controller support (though it’s probably pretty tricky with a controller).

    Unfortunately I couldn’t convince my significant other to play it, so I haven’t got around to trying it yet. Last time I played was 2011.

  5. cheeley says:

    Yay for Cromulent Archer’s YT videos.

  6. Gorgonos says:

    I first learned about Project Zomboid through NEO Scavenger, which suggests to check it out on its main menu screen, something you definitely don’t see very often.

    Also, on an unrelated note, the amount of (excellent) articles lately by Brock is slowly turning the site into… Brock, Paper, Shotgun! (I am sorry if this pun has been made before. To be honest, I am sorry even if it hasn’t… :( )

  7. DeepFried says:

    Oh man this game, the game I bought in alpha on Desura was a fun interesting little game that seemed almost complete to me… then they rebuilt the whole thing like 5 times over, sucking a bit more fun out of it each time.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Mikemcn says:

    I bought this long before it even hit Steam, it has been forever, great game but it never lived up to the potential of that demo where you had to deal with your infected wife! That was an incredible little sequence.

    • DeepFried says:

      Yes, so much this, and I preferred the paper doll type sprites they had as the art style then as well. That alpha demo really grabbed me and the game has never really had the same hook since.

      • gunrodent says:

        They baited you, hooked you, and then went down What-ever-I-feel-like-doing lane with the development. I was fooled by the baldspot story, too. I think last time I checked this game was 4 years ago, and I realized it is no fun alone. Multi it is a bit fun, but it just keeps growing and expanding without concentrating on what I felt was the core.

  9. Klun says:

    stuck in development is the right choice of words in my opinion

    this is clearly why”ea” games needs to be revised overall 7 years in development and 5 in steam with barely any real update, other than the microwave “UI”. so so much wasted time to finally give something that what was promised in the promise of the game is beyond pathetic this game is not even star citizen thats is pushing the boundaries is just a development hell with an awful bad management

    • Dinger says:

      forgive me, but something obviously went wrong in the transcription of this comment, with numerous omissions, including at least one obvious omissio per homoioteleuton. I suspect that a mobile-based amanuensis made a hash of the original. So, to render justice to the original comment, I felt the need to emend the text and repunctuate. My additions are in [square brackets].

      This is clearly why ”ea” [=Early Access] games:
      1. Needs to be revised.
      2. Overall 7 years in development and 5 in.
      3. Steam with barely any real [particle effects?]
      4. Update other than the microwave “UI”.

      [I am] so so much wasted. Time to finally give something that [resembles an assessment.]
      What was promised? In the promise of the game is [a depiction of the human condition that is] beyond pathetic. This game is not even Star Citizen, that [i]s [to say, it] is pushing the boundaries, [while SC] is just a development hell with an awful[ly] bad management.

      I’m still not sure I captured the original poster’s sense, but I tried at least to make the points clearer with reference to generally agreed-upon facts as attested in the main article and elsewhere in the RPS textual community. I am willing to entertain other suggestions on how to emend or otherwise castigate the text.

  10. kulik says:

    I think that the development took some bad turns along the way. I remember it was supposed to be about last few days in a zombie apocalypse. It was supposed to be intensive, relatively short and focused on NPC’s – “This is how you died.” They lost years implementing house building, farming, fishing and generally making it boring – “This is how you lived and got bored.” I still give it a try once or twice in a year just to see whats new, but i kind of lost hope.

  11. Chris says:

    In 2035 when they add NPCs it will be worth playing. Until then it’s a snooze fest.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I quite like Project Zomboid. As others have stated above, it’s a bit unfocused, but… that’s kind of what I like about it.

    It’s definitely not minecraft. It’s not left 4 dead either. If you go around guns blazing, you’ll die. If you set up shop at a river in the middle of the woods, you’ll get bored and still probably die.

    But it’s a weird, open-world zombie sim, raiding houses and avoiding mobs of the undead. It’s neat in its odd presentation and gameplay flow. Really is a fun game to pick up from time to time.

  13. Telkir says:

    I keep track of the Zomboid blog posts that they make every Thursday (was previously on Mondays). I understand that making games can be hard and there may be lots of unforeseen twists and turns, but given they seem to have quite a number of people contributing code for various aspects, the pace of development has been excruciatingly slow.

    The addition of vehicles has taken over a year and is only just now reaching a state where it will appear somewhere outside of the IWBUMS (I Will Back Up My Save) testing branch. I’ve been waiting that long, and more, for the upcoming animations update that should make… well… animations of all sorts across the game much more immersive and smooth, along with making it so your character’s appearance fully reflects what they’re actually wearing.

    And the close-to-mythical NPCs, of course. Maybe before 2030? *shrug* Who knows!

    I know I’m perhaps being overly cynical since Indie Stone have basically made a decent game even in its present state, but sheesh, a guy only lives so long, ya know? :P

    • gunrodent says:

      You’re not the only one. I bought it on Desura in, is it 2010? It is hazy. Could’ve been 11. But I think it was 10. I bought it because it felt like an interesting take on zombievival and because I wanted more about the Baldspot story. And then bait-and-switch. No baldspot. And they’re very defensive about it when you ask. The demo AI was probably very rudimentary.
      I am amazed they can still keep up development on it, but skirting the core gameplay mechanic that got me hooked: NPCS!
      And I think they will never come. The game just keeps getting more and more complex. How could anyone ever write AI routines to deal with that?

  14. jeremyalexander says:

    This was one of the few games for which I was an early adopter, I’ve never played a minute of it and I still don’t regret it. I want it to release sometime soon as I’m not getting any younger, but they way they keep working on it and tweaking it is sort of like the way I view Dwarf Fortress. The finished product should really be something special.

  15. necurbanapauperem says:

    NPCs yet? No? Never mind then. I’m sure the rest is nice too but… Sorry. It’s literally only the NPCs being added which will bring me back to it, otherwise it’s no different than if it were released, I’d already played it, got bored, and moved on.

  16. Psychomorph says:

    Ultima Z.

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